Happy 25th Anniversary River Café

September 11, 2012

Last week, when the sun shone consistently in London and temperatures were warm, was the perfect River Café week.  I know this not so much from being a frequent daytime diner at this famous London restaurant, but because for the past three years I have had the pleasure (and sometimes the jealous pain) to work in an office just above this riverside establishment, which serves the best of simple and traditional Italian cuisine.  My window overlooks the idyllic setting on the north bank of the Thames with a view onto the signature blue chairs and white awnings that protect ladies who lunch and their gelato from the rare but surprisingly strong sun.

Around 11AM during the summer months, the aromas of freshly baked bread from their wood-burning oven, grilled fish, and cooked vegetables and herbs from the garden waft through my window inducing a lunchtime appetite often far too close to breakfast and far too mighty for the minimal caloric requirements of my stationary desk job.  From my vantage point, I can intermittently look upon diners without them knowing, living vicariously through their primi and secondi dishes, their sometimes numerous bottles of wine, and divine dolce.  I can absorb the sounds of forks and knives tapping ceramic dishes and clinking wine glasses that conjure up memories of my summers living in Italy so palpable I can almost taste the olive oil.

Because part of my desk job is entertaining clients, I’ve also had the absolute pleasure of experiencing many delicious 2 or 3-course lunches there myself, none of which have ever failed to satisfy my hunger, delight my tastebuds or provide a feast of colour to my eyes.  Yes, I’m that girl covertly taking photos of her food with her i-phone just like I took photos of my Easter basket when I was little to preserve the beauty of what would soon be devoured graciously in front of me.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had such consistent satisfaction from one place, such incredible hospitality and flawless service, such authenticity and humbleness where, because of the celebrity clientele and attention of the press, there could instead be a massive ego.  I have no doubt that this is because the River Café, originally the canteen for the neighbouring architectural firm (Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners), was dreamed up by two women with a sincere love of functionality, food and Italy: Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray.  While Rose sadly passed away recently due to cancer, Ruth still owns the restaurant and can be seen throughout the day dressed in her white chef’s outfit, checking on her staff and guests, maintaining a presence not dissimilar to an Italian mamma who never wanders far from her kitchen.

On the wall next to the bar, there is a framed black and white photo of Ruth and Rose sat at what one can only assume is a table outside some sunny Italian trattoria or ristorante, perfectly content in their sundresses and at home in one another’s company.  There is something really special about that photo to me.  It manages to tell me a lot about two women I hardly know, their friendship, and the heart and soul behind the menu.  It also reminds me very much of photographs taken of my dear friend Tamara and me on several holidays to visit what we affectionately refer to Italy as: The Mothership.

I met Tamara roughly 8 years ago before moving to London from New York City.  She, like me, was partaking in a summer programme in Urbino (the Marche region of Italy) in an effort to soak up all things sunny and Italian before the summer ended.  When it came time to introduce ourselves to the rest of our advanced level Italian class, we chuckled when our bios seemed to mirror one anothers’ perfectly – two Franco/Italio-files with undergraduate degrees in romance languages, penchants for foreign films and literature and futures in London.  I had just come from a few weeks volunteering on organic farms in Abruzzo to perfect my Italian and Tamara was on a generous summer holiday from her role at the French Institute (Cine Lumiere).  It didn’t take long before we became two peas in a pod, accompanying each other on shopping trips for fresh peaches and ricotta cheese, spending afternoons sipping campari sodas in the sun and taking small hikes up the hillside to drink prosecco and munch on crisps while watching the sunset.  High on the bliss of Italian life (and pizza), we knew we would maintain the friendship (and try to maintain the essence of Italian living) when we were back in London in September.

Tamara in Verona

Me sat opposite Tamara

Two Springs later Tamara had now become one of my closest friends and, upon my 27th birthday in April, she gifted me two small cookbooks:  The River Cafe Pocket Books: Salad & Vegetables and The River Cafe Pocket Books: Pasta & Ravioli – explaining that they were the byproducts of one of the best Italian restaurants in London and sure to provide ongoing motivation to cook the way I had learned on the farms in Abruzzo, despite the lack of fresh ingredients.  She said, ‘one day when we’ve saved up, we’ll go to the restaurant ourselves,’ but for my first five years in London I could only know River Café through its brilliantly concise recipes that Tamara and I would replicate on the occasion of the ‘Italian film nights’ we hosted at our respective Battersea residences.  I continue to reference these books today – they are the perfect kitchen companion and capture the simplicity of Italian cuisine taught to me by the Italian mammas who ran the restaurants at the agriturismi where I worked.  I recall asking nonna Mirella after every delectable dish I tasted – yum – what have you put in this?  The answer was always the same: un po’ d’olio d’olive, un po’ di sale, un po’ d’aglio e basta!  A little olive oil, a little salt and a little garlic – and there you go!  My favourite recipe in the books?  Zucchini Trifolati – courgettes with a little basil, a little mint, a little garlic, a little olive oil (okay, a lot of olive oil) and there you go!  Heaven.

In 2009 when I was looking for a new job, I received a phone call for a role at a media company situated above the River Café – have you heard of it? At the time I couldn’t register that the River Café actually existed beyond the pages of my cookbooks and I mistakenly confused it with Riverside Studios, a cinema/arthouse just down the river.  I couldn’t visualize a restaurant sharing the location of an office and assumed the recruiter accidentally modified the name.  It wasn’t until my interview in the board room that I looked out the window and realized where I was.  My interviewer saw pure delight wash over my face as I admired the view and he mentioned that it was a great restaurant where they often took guests.  Let’s just say when I had to make a decision about the job, this was on my list of pros.

Three years later and I feel I have accumulated enough dining experiences – both actual and vicarious – to truly understand what the River Café is all about.  However, I am well aware that my 3 years pales in comparison to the 25 witnessed by the creators who on Sunday celebrated the longevity of a restaurant that continues to attract a crowd of devoted clientele.  I have no doubt there were many ups and downs along the way and that the result of many years of hard work has produced something potentially very far from the original intention. The history can be felt; the fine tuning of every last detail has not gone unnoticed – it’s something that can only be achieved with time and dedication.  Whatever the plan was, it has worked for me.

I feel blessed for the many times I’ve been able to choose a starter consisting of fresh greens from the garden, unbelievable raw mozarella or grilled calamari, a main of Scottish scallops or sea bass accompanied by vegetables or beans cooked in authentic Italian fashion.  I feel honoured to have dipped many a slice of bread in olive oil as pure as gold and spoiled to have experienced the wickedly decadent chocolate nemesis on more than one occasion.  But beyond even the experience of the restaurant, I feel lucky to have worked within a little pocket of London so carefully carved by the architects who modified the space, that it has become an oasis far from the chaos of the city.  I feel lucky to have taken my lunch breaks by the garden, at a picnic table or on a piece of lawn nestled within an area of London that feels like it’s bordering Italy.  It’s a space that inspires taking deep breaths, feeling fresh air, and appreciating life.  I love everything about it, including the nifty bike park where I can nestle my bike safely throughout the day in a what looks like a happy bicycle daycare facility.  Yes, in the summer months more than any other time, the River Café and its surroundings is a space that nurtures you and inspires healthy living, just like Italy.

So it’s on the occasion of The River Café’s 25th anniversary that I want to thank Ruth and Rose and the architects (Lord Rogers) who created this Londoner’s Italian piazza just outside my window.  We share a six-year history together, but your relationship with London started far ahead of mine.  When I came into work on the Monday morning after your big day, there was a silence outside, reminiscent of the winter months when the outdoor seating hibernates until the next year (and when I am less aware of the beauty beneath me).   The celebration that took place the day before left a visible and energetic mark.  You’ve set an amazing example that will inspire me (and surely countless others) in my future endeavours.  I hope one day there will be more restaurants like this one and more spaces in London that instill a higher appreciation of local food, urban nature and community, but for now you are one of a kind.

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